A Year Later, BP Oil Spill Still Marks The Gulf

Nearly one year ago, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, killing 11 people and beginning one of the worst oil spills in U.S. history. Host Scott Simon talks with NPR's Debbie Elliott, who has covered the spill and its aftermath.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

It's nearly a year now since an explosion at an offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico unleashed the worst oil spill in U.S. history. The human toll from the disaster has been great, 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon rig were killed on April 20 when oil and gas erupted from the well after a series of safety failures.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

SIMON: As the workers were memorialized last May, BP's well was gushing unchecked into the Gulf of Mexico. It would do so for three months. NPR's Debbie Elliott has covered the spill and its aftermath. She joins us from Orange Beach, Alabama. Debbie, thanks so much for being with us.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And help us understand what the situation is on the Gulf Coast today. For one thing, there's oil still coming ashore.

ELLIOTT: No, nothing like the images that all of us remember from last summer when heavy oil was washing up on the beaches and in the bayous. But oil does remain in some places. And then as you move eastward to places that are more beachy - for example, on the Florida panhandle - generally, you don't have large oiled areas. But the tiny little tar balls are still washing in from time to time. And in a few spots offshore, there are these submerged tar mats. So, when the weather churns up the surf and churns up the water, those tar balls will wash in again.

BP has little strike teams, they call them, that will come in and clean that up. But for the most part, BP has downsized its cleanup.

SIMON: And how have people bounced back?

ELLIOTT: You know, people are ready to bounce back but it's been very uneven, the recovery along the coast. Some places have had a really strong spring break season. For example, places like Pensacola Beach, Florida, Panama City. The big question mark, I think, remains for the people who make their living fishing, in particular commercial fisheries.

Most of the Gulf fishing grounds are back open and federal officials say they are testing and the seafood is safe, but people are understandably still skeptical about it, so the market hasn't bounced back for Gulf seafood. And now with higher gas prices, for fishermen trying to get back into business is just a real challenge.

SIMON: There's also been a lot of skepticism over that $20 billion compensation fund that BP set up to pay oil spill victims administered by Kenneth Feinberg. Tell us how that's going.

ELLIOTT: He's paid out $3.8 billion, which sounds like a lot of money, but when you look at the numbers: there are 500,000 claims that have been put in and only 176,000 of them have been paid. So, there's a pretty big discrepancy there.

SIMON: What's the story you think we ought to be watching now, Debbie?

ELLIOTT: I think a couple of things: scientists are monitoring the health of the Gulf ecosystem but the answers just aren't there. We don't know what the long-term impact is going to be to the Gulf of Mexico. And then on the human side, there has been a lot of mental health fallout on the Gulf Coast here. Experts say it's a traumatic event and the symptoms are probably just now peaking.

For example, calls to a mental health hotline in Alabama nearly tripled in March. This is, you know, practically a year after the spill. Late last year we profiled a family in Bayou La Batre, Alabama - Lima and Aaron Hofer and their two young children. He was a fourth generation shrimper who could no longer work - he's an Iraqi war veteran. They had been on a downward spiral since the spill.

Ms. LIMA HOFER: We're very, very close on the edge of losing everything. If somebody takes my kids 'cause I can't help myself. But, you know, God feeds the birds. How much more does He love us? I just tell myself that, like 100 times a day.

ELLIOTT: They were a heartbreaking story. They had lost their home, they had split up a couple of times. Aaron Hofer had contemplated suicide. All signs that experts say are of the human trauma that a manmade disaster like this can create. Now, the bright spot, I should add, Scott, is that the Hofer family is doing much better these days. They have found a home. He has found some temporary work and he's getting counseling through the VA.

SIMON: I think those of us who've been fortunate to make even short reporting trips to the Gulf, Debbie, are impressed by the determination of people there.

ELLIOTT: People pride themselves here on, you know, well, we've been through Hurricane Katrina, we've been through Hurricane Ivan, we've been through a lot. We've been through a bad economy. We can get through this too. And I think with the anniversary that's the spirit that you're seeing come through. You know, just last weekend in Chauvin, Louisiana, they had their annual blessing of the fleet. And they almost cancelled it but the community said, no, we need to have this. This is an important sign of hope for our community and we need that hope. We need to look for the future.

SIMON: NPR's Debbie Elliott in Orange Beach, Alabama. Thanks so much.

ELLIOTT: Thank you, Scott.

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